You’ve seen the ads. Lance Armstrong taking center stage, resplendent in yellow garb, only he’s wearing boxing shorts, not his usual racing shirt. Andre Agassi connecting on a fast one, only it comes straight from a pitcher’s arm, not an opponent’s racket. Marion Jones hurdling through the air looking for style points, rather than distance. Brian Urlacher and Michael Vick laying out opponents on ice rather than grass. Randy Johnson throwing strikes of a different variety. Serena Williams serving aces on a beach.
It’s a familiar concept for sports aficionados: the “What if” game. What if Tiger Woods tried tennis? What if Shaquille O’Neal played defensive tackle? What if Keri Strug were a jockey? The game can last for hours, with countless hypotheses running the gamut of the sporting world. But until recently the game was pure fantasy. The stuff of imagination. The kind of thing that was only worth wasting your time on if you were bored on a long car ride.
But now, thanks to Nike and their enterprising advertising, we can get a glimpse, albeit 90 seconds short, of “What if” (which, not coincidentally, is the name of the ad campaign) realized. Sure, special effects were used in the ads. Yes, it seems doubtful that Virginia native Michael Vick can skate that fast. Still, the ads are great. Pointless analysis great, in fact.
Lance Armstrong, middleweight boxer — Since he is a cyclist, it is redundant to point out that most of Lance Armstrong’s strength emanates from his lower body. While leg strength may help a boxer move around the ring and stay on his toes, strength in the upper body is far more important when trying to knock somebody’s lights out. But given the toughness Armstrong has displayed in winning the last five Tour de Frances, not to mention the unconquerable strength of will it took to overcome testicular cancer, learning to box doesn’t seem like that difficult a task. And though I don’t pretend to know anything about throwing punches, his form in the commercial is pretty darn convincing. If Lance Armstrong wanted to box, I believe he would be successful at it. Believability Rating: 9/10
Andre Agassi, Red Sox shortstop — Agassi presents one of the classic hypotheticals of the “What if” game: What if a tennis player tried to play baseball? Would his experience returning 140 mile-per-hour serves help him hit 100 mile-per-hour fastballs? Would lunging for a tennis ball on the court equate to lunging for a baseball in the field? Agassi is one of tennis’ most precise hitters and has renowned hand-eye coordination, so he’d probably be able to make contact with the fastest stuff; the question is whether he would hit anything more than singles. (I would make a crack about using steroids here, except John McEnroe’s recent admission of drug use makes tennis players almost as shady as baseballers.) My assessment of his fielding capability is similar: I’d bet he could stop the ball at shortstop; the question would be whether he could make the throw to first. My gut tells me he couldn’t. Believability Rating: 6/10
Marion Jones, gymnast — This is the “What if” I had the most trouble with. Marion Jones is about as graceful as a track superstar can be, and yet she looked like the Hulk lumbering down the runway in her sequined leotard. Her spinning vault was obviously computer generated and her landing unconvincing. Unfortunately, gymnastics is a sport in which style points matter. And Jones doesn’t get any. She should stick to the long jump. Believability Rating: 3/10
Brian Urlacher and Michael Vick, hockey players — If we assume that Urlacher and Vick can actually skate, the following conclusions are plausible: 1. Brian Urlacher would be an awesome enforcer. He might not score any goals, but there is little doubt that Urlacher would viciously deal spleen-busting checks to opposing hockey players. And then there’s the brawling factor. 2. Michael Vick would not make the same impact that he does in football. Though he has great breakaway speed, the real magic that makes Vick Vick is his ability to cut, juke, slither, and otherwise finagle his way out of the grasp of would-be tacklers. On skates most, if not all, of those moves would be stripped from his repertoire. Plus, in football, his ability to run or throw the ball makes him doubly dangerous. In hockey, there’s only one way to score. He’d still be ridonkulously fast, but there are plenty of speedy skaters in the NHL. Believability Rating: 5/10
Randy Johnson, professional bowler — Before we start in on this, I have to share a dirty little secret of mine. In high school, I was on the varsity bowling team. Yes, I know. That’s lame. That’s really lame. In any case, my bowling experience leads me to divulge this gem: Bowling is about technique, not how hard you can throw the ball. Randy Johnson’s ability to throw 100 mph fastballs would not help him throw strikes on the lanes. He could be good at bowling. But so could you, or me, or any other schmoe who invests enough time and money to get really good at it. Believability Rating: 7/10
Serena Williams, beach volleyball pro — There are a lot of similarities between volleyball and tennis, logistics-wise, so it probably wouldn’t be too hard for Serena to make the transition in that regard. She’s got enough height, at 5’10”, to play the net, and we know her serve would be good. Plus, when diving to hit a return shot she’d land in forgiving sand, a nice change from concrete, clay or grass. Plus, Venus could play doubles. Believability Rating: 8/10
What have we learned from this little exercise? Nothing ground-breaking, really. Nike makes entertaining ads, the “What if” game is fun, Lance Armstrong is one tough hombre, and Bo knows baseball, Bo knows football, Bo knows basketball, Bo knows softball, Bo knows cooking, Bo knows fencing and Bo knows curling. Wait a minute —